Michael Bierut | Essays

Vinyl Fetish

Record label, "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," Sugarhill Records, 1981. Inscribed To my buddy Micheal, Grandmaster Flash

In 2006 Michael Bierut was the DJ for the National Design Awards. This is his rembrance of the event and his trip down vinyl memory lane. And don't miss his set list at the end. — The Editors

The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum holds parties in their beautiful garden on Friday nights during the summer, each one of which features a guest DJ. I was talking to someone there and suggested — half jokingly — that I thought I would make a good guest DJ since I had what was, to my knowledge, the best collection of rap and dance 12 inch records of any middle-aged white guy in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

Now, this claim may or may not actually be true, but the Cooper-Hewitt decided to put me to the test. As you may have heard, they asked me to be the DJ for the after party at the National Design Awards, on October 18th, 2006.

So, this past weekend, I went down in the basement and brought up three heavy boxes of records that hadn't seen the light of day in more than 20 years. And I wondered: would they still work?

When I first moved to New York City in the summer of 1980, I picked up a new habit. I started going to nightclubs, and I started buying records. Like any self-respecting 70s-era college student, I already owned a serious collection of LPs that I had dragged with me from one dorm room to another. But this was something new. I still bought, say, the latest Elvis Costello or the new Talking Heads, but my real passion was searching for some song I had heard on Friday night at Danceteria like "Chant No. 1 (I Don't Need This Pressure On)" by Spandau Ballet (well before they entered their treacly "True" phase). Or "Holy Ghost" by the Bar-Kays (featuring the stupendous drum break that was sampled to anchor "Pump Up the Volume" by MAARS). Or "Alice, I Want You Just for Me!" with its insistent exclamatory punctuation, by Full Force, who also recorded under the name Cult Jam when they backed up Lisa Lisa on the irresistibly sing-songy "Head to Toe." Or "Don't Make Me Wait" by the Peech Boys, or "We Don't Need this Fascist Groove Thing," by Heaven 17, or "Da Butt" by Experience Unlimited (lyrics by Spike Lee!).

But what came to obsess me was what today we'd call old school hip-hop, but what I then just called rap. "What are all those light blue records?" a visitor to our teeny apartment once asked, indicating the line of identically-clad Sugarhill discs that I had lined up on my shelf back in 1984. Yes, like most of white America, I'd started with "Rappers Delight" by the group that launched Sylvia Robinson's label, the Sugarhill Gang, but soon it was on to Sequence ("Funk You Up"), the Funky Four Plus 1 ("That's the Joint"), Mean Machine ("Disco Dream," which I won by being the first "Name It and Claim It" caller to Frankie Crocker's show on WBLS), and of course, the performers that defined the movement, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. And in early 80s New York, it was more than records. We saw Flash perform live three different times; his 1981 studio release "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" didn't come anywhere near replicating the experience of watching the virtuoso cut to the beat in real time. But records were what I had, and, like Shrevie in Diner (1982), boy, did I love my records.

It wasn't the looks. Part of what made my collection remarkable was how...well, ugly it was. This was not a fertile field for record cover designers. I found a few exceptions in those boxes in my basement: Pedro Bell's ghetto psychedelia for "Atomic Dog" by George Clinton, Peter Saville's now-legendary sleeve for Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," and Maira Kalman's debut as an illustrator on M&Co.'s cover for David Byrne's EP Three Big Songs (remixed from his score for Twyla Tharp's The Catherine Wheel). But most of the covers — Sugarhill's rainbow-hued tornado, Enjoy's illegible silver-on-red graffiti, West End's pink/maroon/orange/beige(!) skyline — are as seemingly disposable as the music they contained. For the most part, this was silly, danceable music dominated by exhortations to throw your hands in the air, etc. Flash's later collaborations with Furious Five member Melle Mel, "The Message" and "White Lines," were true Reagan-era protest songs that suggested the harder, darker strains that would overtake the genre in the mid-eighties with the rise of Run DMC, Afrika Bambaataa, and, of course, Public Enemy. I didn't like this as much, and my mania subsided at about the time I got a cd player.

I never really worked as a professional DJ back then. I just had a fairly big record collection and would be asked to lug my boxes to friends' parties and play songs so people could dance. A few times, strangers asked me to play records at their parties and I'd get paid for that, although not much. See, actually having the records counted for something in those days, as did knowing the difference between, say, the "Party Version" of Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat" and the "Club Version." (184 seconds.) I remember someone at a party offering me $150 dollars for my copy of "Hey Fellas" by those pioneers of DC go-go music, Trouble Funk. He said he'd been looking for it everywhere. I didn't sell it, of course: I was jealously guarding my private corner on the Trouble Funk market. So that record's been down in my basement with the rest of them for twenty years. Like all the others, it still works.

Of course, today you can download a dozen different versions of "Hey Fellas." My corner on the Trouble Funk market is, I guess, worthless. The boxes, however, are as heavy as ever.

For the curious, here's the playlist from the National Design Awards after party. Many, many thanks to my boothmate DJ Chroma, a.k.a. Kevin Smith, whose mad skills made up for my lack of same. And thanks to everyone who danced!

Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine (Live in Augusta, Georgia) / James Brown
Genius of Love / Tom Tom Club
Double Dutch Bus / Frankie Smith
Me No Pop I / Coati Mundi
Da Butt / E.U.
Hey Fellas / Trouble Funk
We Need Some Money / Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers
That's the Joint / Funky Four Plus 1
Eighth Wonder / Sugarhill Gang
Push It / Salt N Pepa
The Breaks / Kurtis Blow
White Lines (Don't Do It) / Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel
The Message / Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
Kiss / Prince and the Revolution
Let It Whip / Dazz Band
The Groove Line / Heat Wave
Shake Your Body Down to the Ground / Jacksons
Straight Up / Paula Abdul
Atomic Dog / George Clinton
Alice, I Want You Just for Me! / Full Force
Chant No. 1 (I Don't Need This Pressure On) / Spandau Ballet
In the Name of Love / Thompson Twins
Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go / Soft Cell
She Blinded Me with Science / Thomas Dolby
Soul Makossa / Manu DiBango
Jam Hot / Johnny Dynell and New York 88
Car Wash / Rose Royce
We Are Family / Sister Sledge
Don't Leave Me This Way / Thelma Houston
Never Can Say Goodbye / Gloria Gaynor

Posted in: Music

Comments [46]

I am so, so weepy sad I'm going to miss this.
marian bantjes

Thanks for the post, Michael.

It never ceases to suprise me how many designers either were DJs, have become DJs, or play a few records on the side. Could it be that vinyl hoarding is another manifestation of the somewhat fetishistic/OCD personality that makes up a good designer?

PS. If you have anything in your crates on 99 Records (Liquid Liquid, ESG, etc) I'll take them of your hands ;-)
Jon Williams


Thanks for taking us back to those wonder years in New york City. I arrived there in 1979 as a 9 year old from Puerto Rico.

Graffiti and break dancing was my introduction to the arts.

Adidas and Pumas, fat laces, fat tip Pilot markers, Krylon spray paint, wind breakers, and yes my Lee Jeans.

It was a whole experience... waiting for the end of school bell to ring and heading over to the nearest record store and browsing thru the latest LPs from the likes of The Fat Boys, Run D.M.C, Mantronix, Grandmaster Flash, Art of Noise, Kurtis Blow, Doug E. Fresh and others. I was also deep with "Freestyle" music. The early stomping grounds for India, Marc Anthony, Lisa Lisa, and others now well know artists.

Three of my favorite tracks from the 80s are "Jumpback (Set Me Free)" by Dhar Braxton, "Running" by Information Society, and the ultimate break dancers anthem "Beat Box (1983)" by Art of Noise.

I recently saw a truck commercial that used the track "Stick 'Em" by the Fat Boys. What an attention grabber for my generation.

This coming year I am releasing limited edition prints of 40 of my graffiti sketches of burners from 1987 - 2003. My most active years were 1983 - 1987 as a tagger (6 line) and 1989 - 1991 for burners (Manhattan and The Bronx.) One burner I collaborated on was done at the NYC Graffiti Hall of Fame (106 & Park Ave) in 1990.

So, Michael are you going to tear up the 1s and 2s at the Gala After Party?

What's your DJ name?

I recently heard that Karim Rashid hit the tables and the reviews are mixed...


Samuel E. Vazquez

Danceteria. Trouble Funk. Chant #1. We led the same lives, I swear. I've also got six boxes of vinyl glory in the basement - that I can't seem to let go of - even though I no longer own a turntable. You've almost inspired me to go pull them out again, too.

Jon Williams is right - so many creatives I know were also dj's. Sooo sad I'll miss your event! I'm going to go download a copy of "the Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight" in your honor.

It is nice to know I am not alone. I never thought these 2 topics I enjoy would come together on the Design Observer (Hip Hop Records & Design). I have always said I learned good design from record shopping, not in design school.

Peanut Butter Wolf (Stones Throw Records) put together this AWESOME hip hop 45's deskstop graphic that I love.

HIP HOP 45's

Check out some of the new stuff at Stones Throw Records. The art director, Jeff Jank is doing some of the best new hip hop record covers.

Stones Throw Records
Tony Venne

That's really impressive Michael that you bought and still have those records. So much of what I and others went through back then seemed so disposable because it was omnipresent. Records we had at places I worked we couldn't beg people to buy are now highly sought after. I wonder these days how this translates to the mp3 culture.
Yale Evelev


Speaking of dusting off an old collection, my friend John inherited a collection of 3,000 45's, and he's in the process of cataloging it online here. Enjoy. (Full disclosure: he decided to build a website to do this, called me, and we turned the idea into a venture). He hasn't gotten to his 80's records yet. Still working through Marvin Gaye, Bobby Vinton, The Beatles, Elvis, Peter Frampton, The Carpenters...
Steve de Brun

I think there is a strong parallel between Graphic Design and DJ-ing.

The designer might not be the illustrator, photographer or type designer--but by having a mastery of a visual language and understanding of the audience-- is no less important.

The DJ similarly draws from the sound mostly created by others to establish a rhythm, create and relieve tension, delight with surprise, and generally keep the mood alive.

Where musicians and visual artists must be true to their muses, DJs and designers are beholden to their audiences.

Maybe your heavy vinyl crates have cousins in letterpress type cases!

Mark Notermann

Ah, this post resonates with me! I lived in The City 1979-85, and rode my bike everywhere, chanting to cars that pressed too close:
"Dont push me, cause Im close to the edge
Im trying not to loose my head
Its like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under"
The Message, indeed. Back then I commuted upstate many weekends because the best dance parties were DJed by my then boyfriend, now husband, at places like Klub Polski (bowling alley in the basement, Sun Ra and the Omniverse Arkestra guest live music) and at The Creamery, whose parties grew so large and wild that the tiny surrounding village wrote an ordinance forbidding such gatherings. So now GrooveGoojah plays mixes alone upstairs from my studio, and I prop the door open to hear this middle-aged Polish man's amazing spins.
Marty Blake

Great post, Micheal. It's always great to hear the stories of others who've discovered and enjoy hip hop/rap, particularly at different points in its brief history.

I agree with Mark that designers and DJs have a many parallels. Hip hop and turntablism, in particular. Reappropriating, recontextualizing, layering, creating from happenstance and scraps. All of these are prevalent in both design and DJing, so it's only natural that we'd have a particular appreciation of their art.

In fact, there's a great little mini-documentary on the origins and spreading of the "Amen break", used all over modern music and the foundation of drum 'n' bass and jungle. It examines how current copyright laws can squash this kind of cultural evolution, as well. It's a nice examination of vinyl's continued influence on our culture. (I recommend not watching it, but listening only, as it's more of an audio piece.) I bet you'd appreciate it.
Chris Rugen

I don't think I can pony up $125, so someone better get a line-out up on Rapidshare after this.

This is very interesting to me. I used to dj for a hobby, and I'm a designer. Though I'm only 23, and can't relate to the 70's, I have alot of my dads old records from back then, and I love listening to them still.

The parellel between designers and dj's is pretty cool, and I've thought about it before, but have never read anything about it.
J Phill

Tickets ARE a tad expensive. Actually, VERY expensive. I will be hovering behind the hedges.
Soohyen Park

These good guys hired Grand Master Flash himself to DJ their party last month! Admission: free.

Tickets ARE a tad expensive.

I've often wondered who has the $ to go these events. Our after party next month will have the Canadian Beirut spinnin' & grinnin'. Oh, you're gonna pay my friend. In American.

felix sockwell

There are a lot of similarities between DJ and GD. Primarily in that both are selectors and manipulators. Whats your set? And how do you put it all together? That's what differentiates you in both activities, I think.

Nicolas Bourriaud's Postproduction discusses the similarities between the DJ's mode and contemporary art practice.

Speaking of sets... it sounds like a lot of people would like to be at the after party for Michael's set. I am wondering if there will be a poscast available for all of us who would love to be there. Maybe a Design Observer first?
Tony Venne

My vinyl lust started in the 80s after seeing album cover designs for for Duran Duran's Rio by Patrick Nagel, the abstract art for The Fixx's Reach the Beach, , and the simple, bright typography of Human League's Hysteria. I can remember sketching the logos for various New Wave bands on my PeeChee in Junior High. Eighteen years later, I still buy and mix records (yes, they STILL make 12" singles folks). I know of many DJs who have switched to digital mixing a'la Stanton's Final Scratch where one can leave the records home and access all of your music from a laptop, but to me, part of the joy of spinning vinyl is the tactile and visual qualities of it as well as the music.

At least I'll never have to worry about my set disappearing into the ether if I drop my laptop. Besides, has anyone else noticed how much new music has the familiar pops and scratches of old vinyl added to it? Let's face it: it just sounds better and imbues music with a certain legitimacy it wouldn't normally have. I think I'll go home and mix tonight.
Jim Nesbitt

The famous bassline in "White Lines" (Grandmaster Flash) was sampled from the Liquid Liquid song "Cavern", and Richard McGuire (the genius New Yorker illustrator and creator of the seminal "Here" comic), was / is the bassist for Liquid Liquid. I wonder if Beirut and McGuire ever got down on the same dance floor?

how about only being able to spin form records one has acctually designed, that could be a challenge!
martin ogolter

My vinyl lust started in the 80s after seeing album cover designs for for Duran Duran's Rio by Patrick Nagel...

pedantic, sort of:

patrick nagel just did the portrait. the actual design for all of duran duran's work was done by assorted images. they also handled culture club's work, among others.

(assorted images' hand-drawn type and glyphs for seven and the ragged tiger were the things to inspire me to start designing in the first place.)

First album bought: Elvis -- Double Dynamite! 1975. (Link is obviously a DAMN GOOD remix.)

Last album bought: iiO -- Rapture. 2001. A 12 inch single. (I think the Riva Remix is why I bought it. Unfortunately, no video of that version exists -- that I know of.)

And 200+ inbetween.

Good Stuff.

Joe Moran

Follow up: Check out Groove Radio. Sweedish Egil. (Not as good as his 1999-2000 Web site, but still worth checking out.) The 420 mix was very fun (stared at exactly 4:20 p.m PST every week day.)

Very much miss their live "interactive" chat room, too. Example of some of their antics >>>


booty shakin' :-)

Joe Moran

Seconding Peter's mention... what McGuire
has been up to. I saw him on tour in 03 (Liquid Liquid, Knitting Factory) and was pretty blown away. The man gets loose.
felix sockwell

Sorry I'll be flying back to Miami that day. We tried a Cooper membership again a year ago, but didn't renew. This summer we peered in through the fence a few times during the Friday night parties, but never saw you and never went in.

Cooper could easily do two improvements. One, make their shows less boring and less predictable. Two, make better use of the garden. If they would put in WiFi, they'd sell a few thousand extra memberships every summer.

BTW, I know it's different, but if you're ready for a break from the same period, throw in "Now That We've Found Love" from Third World. I've been listening to it lately, and it gets people up and dancing.
john massengale

I am far from that era but I would have love to been there. As far as your remark on ugly hip hop record covers. I have had the pleasure of working with a well known underground record label and well through my experience they dont no any better. I would do something which at the time I thought was great and they would change it so much that by the time i got the final product it was not a happy moment. I think they had seen so much bad design that they where convinced that is what good design was......


Michael, your street cred just went from zero to hero!

What's vinyl?...

You are certainly one of the lucky few who still experience the tactile aspects of music, because lugging around 30,000 mp3's never left any lasting impression on me.
Mike Yi

That is exactly my point Mr Yi.

The dawn of digital media has robbed us of the intimacy of interacting with the physical object. To put it another way, I'm not too upset if my wallpaper of my Corbusier LC1 cowhide chair dissappears, but would have a hissy fit if the actual chair went missing. The same goes for my old Bowie records.
James D. NEsbitt

RE: Vinyl Fetish

Michael - Your writing is so different from your usual e-dialogue. So passionate. Must be that built-in rhythm you've stored all these years. Have a ball. You certainly deserve your 15-minutes!
Darlene Watkins

Great article. It got me thinking about the whole idea of "design music." By that I mean the type of music one expects to hear in design studios. You all know what I'm talking about: endlessly repeated albums of Bjork, Air, Moby, David Byrne (solo work), as well as an endless digital soup of generic "trancy" electronica.

In other words, music that goes down easy alongside our Aeron chairs, back-issues of Eye magazine, and, of course, all-black attire. It's nice to hear someone own-up to a different, well...flava.

I'm basing this on studios I've worked at, as well as countless others I've visited. Almost always, it's the same. Rarely does someone have the guts to play something new, fresh and exciting. Keeping current with all aspects of the arts is as important as keeping up with the latest awards annuals.

Surely Massimo would have been appalled to find out what his bright young designer was listening to outside the studio. Who knows, back in the day playing Spoony G in the studio might have been enough to make a man use a sixth typeface.
Marc Levitt

I believe you mean five typefaces as in the ones referred to here...

Jacqueline Diblasi

Sorry in advance. But I had to put this up.

R/ :-)
Joe Moran

"In other words, music that goes down easy alongside our Aeron chairs, back-issues of Eye magazine, and, of course, all-black attire. It's nice to hear someone own-up to a different, well...flava."

isn't it great when someone throws down some hip hop so we can all feel a little less, well...white?
design dude

Cool story, and you have a record collection to be proud of. I am a young designer, and I too was a record-collector-turned-DJ during college. The main difference was that the vinyl I collected was connected closely with the club dance music popular in the 90s.

I read this post and immediately pulled out some of my old records to see what kind of designs they were adorned by. I am thoroughly impressed with the minimalist, modern, design of many electronica (house, break-beat, trance) records. Many adhere to a traditional Swiss style, and I can't help think that much of this must have influenced my aesthetic subconsciously, as I didn't even think about design seriously for years after retiring the collection.

Just my 2 cents. Have a great time spinning at the party.
Ben Wexlar

Thanks for the nostalgic look back on vinyl. As the son of a club disc jockey, I grew up with piles of records all over our basement and now they sit in storage someplace in the Midwest. Often, I reflect on the time I spent playing the albums and handling their sleeves (or just looking at the sleeves themselves). We had so many 12-inches and LPs and 45s too. I feel that in some way that whole experience led me to graphic design.

Music and design have a strange relationship, and to see Michael twisting and turning on Technics turntables (hopefully you have the real deal) would be worth a trip to NYC. Where can we download a Podcast or MP3 of Mixmasterful Michael's post-party?
Jason Tselentis

This post made my day. I'm one of those graphic designers (I run a business) that scratches, mixes and still has gigs in clubs (well, not so often like before)! And I agree on the GD/DJ parallels... I would throw in cooking too, as something that benefits from similar concepts as the other two.
Marko Lokas

I'm with Tselentis, I want a setlist!
Brian Alter

I'm a chilean graphic designer and also have some gigs playing with my 1200s! I'm a collector of everything i heard on my little childhood listening radio shows in the late 80's. My musical background is melted with pure synths from Depeche Mode and Yazoo, dark rhythms from J&M Chain and The Cure, industrial shouts fron Nitzer Ebb and Front 242 and Trans X, Telex and Magazine 60 underground dancefloor.

Curious or not?

I'm of a similar vintage, collected and DJ'd similar stuff in the UK before going to college to become a designer. I collected dance and rap 12"'s as well British music. The designers of the the British bands I collected were a direct influence on me going to college - Peter Saville, Barney Bubbles, Jamie Reid, Malcolm Garrett, Vaughan Oliver - I felt part of their culture. From that time a British band wouldn't dream of launching without a well developed visual concept - designers became essential.

The influence of graphic design is not always that good. I saw a put-down in a review recently: "music for graphic designers".

The dance records came from black America which was a completely opaque world for me, visually at least. There were rarely covers usually sleeves and the disc labels were hard to read in a dark club.

There were no videos. My image of black music was spangly suits of the Stylistics etc. from the TV show Top of the Pops. In a post punk world they looked absurd. This was before teenage white boys in the UK decided they wanted to be black and all the moves and looks came from videos on MTV.

I've just downloaded Grandmaster Flash and the BarKays. This music is still fantastic.

Not all studios are bland. I recently passed through a studio here in Glasgow, Scotland playing the first Clash album on a turntable and no one looked over 30.

So what am I bid for an 11 minute version of Jingo's Candido, Vicki Sue Robinson's Turn the Beat Around?

Good luck Michael.
Duich McKay

Shit, any delusions of singularity are long gone. We are all also djs and cooks.

Pentagram in da house!!!
Groovy setlist - took me back......
But after DJ Mikey B, what's next?
A Glam Night-out from Miss Paula?,
a breakdancing evening from Davey H?
what'd DJ Stout' play?
keep us posted.......

i am very impressed with your playlist... all the best and Soul Makossa / Manu DiBango, too! brilliant! and as a dc native, can i just say that i am really impressed with your knowledge of go-go music... trouble funk... eu... but where is the rare essence? boy, i wish that i was there.

Solid set, but no surprises !

Nice thread guys.

For those within shouting distance of NYC, (and those outside too!) you definitely wanna check the WFMU Record Fair ( http://www.wfmu.org/recfair/ ) coming up the first weekend in November.

If you're serious about the vinyl collecting and the object fetish this is the place to be. If you just wanna wander around and see the amazing graphics and stuff on display, that's cool too.

Plus, you can get beer and pizza in the hall and they have live bands on Saturday and Sunday.

And, yes, I'll be selling there too. Tons of hip hop (tho' mostly 90's), 80's nu wav, Indie and Oz/NZ, etc. etc.

mark zip

Grandmaster Flash has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Michael Bierut

Jobs | July 23